The Hunting (2017)

Editor’s Note: If you’re in need of some fresh garbage, Tubi Channel is a greasy treasure trove of Don’t Go in the Woods epics like this one.

Hunting buddies go in search of their missing mentor in the cleverly titled thriller, The Hunting.

The movie is set in the year 1961. This is probably so director Blaine Gonzales and writer Trevor Doukakis wouldn’t have to worry about cell phones or realistic-looking weaponry.

Seven collegiate lads with plastic rifles rent boats for a camping trip to the mysterious Island of Hobbes, where their friend and teacher Dylan Kane (Bill Collins, a poor man’s Lance Henricksen) has gone to track down the Beast of Hobbes, a legendary bogeyman known to haunt the region.

Leadership responsibilities fall to Ryan (Corey De Silva), Kane’s favorite among the group, which also includes Leonard (Zeph Foster) a laconic tracker, and Al (Jarrett Patrick Burkett) a sniveling British crybaby who carries his gun by the barrel. We ain’t exactly talking about The Wild Bunch here.

Also showing up on the remote island that no one ever goes to is Kane’s plucky daughter Francine (Lisa Collins), who has a simmering crush on Ryan.

None of it adds up to squat, and the group is quickly decimated by a leaping figure in a gorilla suit with an elk-skull helmet. By this time, the viewer will have concluded that they are indeed watching crap, and should disengage with the narrative long enough to huff a couple bong hits, a choice of action that is highly recommended.

There is a reasonable body count here, and the fiend in the fur coat adds a gruesome cherry to the sundae by scalping the victims, perhaps a dig at our own genocidal history.

Even so, The Hunting is a credit-card cheap production, the acting is abysmal, and you will gain no experience points for watching.

The Resort (2021)

Is The Resort worth watching? Only as a last resort.

The glacial pacing is a major challenge. Nothing remotely frightening happens for like 45 minutes, and we’re left to tag along with one of the dullest character quartets ever assembled.

Seriously, these guys should have to study improv comedy or something. Entire scenes go by and we’re hard-pressed to remember anything that was done or said until the mayhem commences.

Lex (Bianca Haase) is hoping to write a book about a Hawaiian resort that closed after two years, “under mysterious circumstances.”

Her beard-o boyfriend Chris (Brock O’Hurn, who appears to have emerged from the same genetic material as the Hemsworth Brothers), springs for a ticket to Maui so they can explore the ruins of a vast luxury hotel complex in search of literary subject matter.

Along for the ride are two expendable friends, Sam (Michael Vlamis), an alcoholic asshole (gotta be one in every group), and Bree (Michelle Randolph), a flirty blonde (ditto).

After several days of travel and gum-flapping exposition, the group finally makes a helicopter landing at the titular destination, which turns out to be haunted by a ferocious specter known as “The Half-Faced Girl.”

The vengeful ghost exacts a 75% death rate in an efficient wave of mutilation, and Lex awakens in a hospital to a nosy detective who wants the whole story.

The (ten-minute?) sequence of the The Half-Faced Girl terrorizing these nimrods at the eerie, deserted resort is almost worth the downtime spent getting there. Heads are crushed, faces are peeled, and the dead rise with Raimi-esque abandon.

Writer-director Taylor Chien makes the rookie mistake of wasting too much of our valuable time on disposable characters. The Resort is not a flick we tune into for a Student Lounge discussion on what happens after we kick the bucket.

Fast-forward through the talking and traveling scenes, and start at their arrival on the island. It’ll save time and be way less annoying.

Animal Among Us (2019)

A very weird and cheap little film.

Animal Among Us kept me marginally enthralled through its entirety, and really, the best I can offer is that it’s weird and cheap, occasionally endearingly so, but mostly it’s a rolling mess.

Somewhere in the California wilderness lies Camp Merrymaker, a blighted spot that’s been closed for 15 years due to a couple kids getting mauled to death by a mysterious creature.

Anita Bishop (Larisa Oleynik) and her sister Poppy (Christine Donlon) are the cute caretakers of this forsaken forest community. They hope to reopen the ill-reputed summer camp with the help of Roland Baumgarner (Christian Oliver), the best-selling author who originally wrote about The Merrymaker Murderer case.

Editor’s Note: After the whole Friday The 13th debacle, why in God’s name would anyone with a grain of sense want to open a summer camp? Were they ever profitable? Just asking.

There’s a junk drawer of subplots spilling all over the place, and what starts out as Cat & Mouse with a monster in the woods, evolves into a revenge plot against the arrogant and faithless Baumgarner.

By no means is Animal Among Us compelling drama, but director John Woodruff and writer Jonathan Murphy pull a few rudimentary surprises out of an old, battered hat.

Their neatest cinematic trick is enlisting the talents of Christine Donlon as a sex-pot forest ranger, who seems to have wandered in from a steamy Cinemax thriller.

Donlon’s libidinous, unhinged performance works as an effective snare to the unaware, hopeful of bonus porn tableaux. (Cue saxophones)

And so the time passes.

Indeed, there is such a palpable sensation of delayed sexy time throughout, that the existence of a spicy director’s cut would surprise absolutely no one of this Earth.

With barely any gore and no actual nudity in the offing, Animal Among Us plays out like community theater Campground Gothic, as an evil, but determined family hangs on against all odds to preserve their vanishing way of life.

To be grudgingly honest, there is a smidgen of entertainment to be derived from witnessing this unstable combination of ludicrous script, wooden acting, and Craft Night special effects.

Keep your expectations as low as the budget and you’ll be fine.

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast (2011)

Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is the low-budget shocker being watched by the doomed audience in The Last Matinee when the maniac (played by Ricardo Islas, the writer-director of this film) goes on his cinematic killing rampage.

Truth be told, I was intrigued enough by the footage to give it a shot, and it turned out to be worth the effort.

In this version of the Frankenstein tale, Victor Frankenstein (Adam Stephenson) has fled to a remote island to wed his beloved Elizabeth (Michelle Shields).

Victor has employed a squad of mercenaries to keep her safe, but the monster (Tim Krueger, who’s quite good) has promised his creator that he would appear on his wedding night to take her.

Islas stays fairly faithful to Mary Shelley’s source material, but departs from the template in significant ways. This incarnation of the Frankenstein Monster is pure evil, with no grey area. He kills in extravagantly brutal fashion, bifuracting one unlucky guard with intestines on full display. Another gets his spine removed, and a blind man is forced to swallow his own cane.

The monster also eats human flesh, so there’s that. Apparently mangling his victims wasn’t sufficient to inspire terror. This guy bites faces off and rips throats out with his teeth.

How downright monstrous!

As the title implies, Frankenstein: Day Of The Beast is a more elemental take on a familiar story, one that doesn’t hold back on the blood and guts, and allows no sympathy for the monster, who doesn’t speak, but occasionally laughs cruelly.

The aforementioned budget limitations show up in various forms, from flimsy sets to terrible acting by supporting characters, but Islas clearly understands what makes Frankenstein’s creation so damned frightening. He is a relentless enemy who can’t be destroyed.

So what are you gonna do? As the vengeful Mohawk says to Max in The Road Warrior, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Ghost Team (2016)

I don’t generally award points for amiability, but somehow Ghost Team managed the feat.

A bunch of goofy ghost chasers get a shot at a real spook surveillance mission, where they must confront dark forces and come together as a team.

As you’ve already guessed, it’s a crew of unhappy misfits looking for something meaningful in their failed lives. Team leader Louis (Jon Heder) is a nonentity who owns a copy shop in a strip mall.

Louis’s depressed BFF, Stan (David Krumholtz), lives on the couch, unable to get past the delusion that his fiancee was abducted by aliens—on their wedding day.

“Why else wouldn’t she be there?” he asks Louis between sobs.

Every team needs a tech wizard, so we also meet Louis’s nephew Zak (Paul W. Downs), a sarcastic prick with access to killer gear, thanks to his job at a Big Box electronics store.

Security guard Ross (Justin Long) is a reasonably brave moron with a military fetish, and Victoria (Amy Sedaris) is a sketchy cable-access clairvoyant looking to get paid.

Finally, there’s Ellie (Melonie Diaz), the pretty Latina who works at the nail salon next door to Louis’s print shop. She signs on to do hair and makeup since everything is being filmed.

The various members of Ghost Team suffer from comically low self-esteem related to their crummy careers, except Stan, who doesn’t have one.

“You remember when you were a kid, and you dreamed one day you’d own your own print and copy shop?” Louis asks Ellie. “Me neither.”

Underdogs. Nerds. Nobodies. The odds are certainly stacked against them. Spirits are lifted with the arrival of matching yellow Ghost Team t-shirts. Sadly, they couldn’t afford the sweet jackets.

Through a timely tip from a copy shop customer, Ghost Team stakes out a remote, boarded up farmhouse and bust out Zak’s “borrowed” ghost-busting gadgets.

Instead of paranormal pratfalls, they stumble upon a meth lab staffed by junkies, who look and act like traditional zombies, leading to a splashy paintball shootout.

Jon Heder provides earnest strength as Louis, the fledgling leader who shows genuine concern for his newfound comrades.

Written and directed by Oliver Irving, Ghost Team is a consistently amusing haunted house caper with heart, one that works best as a team-building exercise. No, it’s not very intense, but if you’re not careful you will be won over by a winning cast of losers.

Tourist Trap (1979)

It’s always a trip to catch a TV icon in a weird little genre film. In the case of Tourist Trap, we’re fortunate to observe The Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, chewing the scenery as the deranged proprietor of a roadside museum called Slauson’s Lost Oasis.

Written and directed by David Schmoeller (Puppet Master, Crawlspace), Tourist Trap begins with car trouble on a lonely road for five young adults (20? 30?) who are “rescued” from the elements by Slauson (Connors), an overall-clad rube who once ran a profitable frontier wax museum in the area.

Sadly, the new highway choked off the customer flow to Lost Oasis, so now it’s just Slauson and a house full of mannequins that occasionally come to life and scream their displeasure.

The victims, including future Charlie’s Angel Tonya Roberts, wisely decide to go explore the creepy manor house one at a time so they can be easily captured by Slauson (or his masked transvestite brother) and converted into shaking mannequins.

So lifelike! Such realistic skin.

In what may be a case of gilding the lily, Slauson also has telekinetic abilities that he uses to shake things up and kill people remotely when his presence is required elsewhere.

Now that’s multitasking!

To his credit, Connors is marvelous as a really kooky dude who misses his wife and his livelihood. He’s not quite as over-the-top batshit as Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell, but he constantly introduces new facets to Slauson’s madness, creating a more well-rounded maniac.

I believe Tourist Trap was remade in 2005 as House Of Wax, a vehicle for the thespian talents of Paris Hilton. There’s less blood in the original, but it’s way wackier.

Vintage weird that’s worth the search.

The Last Matinee (2020)

We’re rolling down South America way for a truly international salute to Italian giallo cinema, that takes place inside a cinema.

In The Last Matinee, a handful of unlucky patrons and staff encounter a thoroughly disgusting maniac who eats the eyeballs of his victims!

Me? I prefer Junior Mints.

Writer-director Maxiliano Contenti hails from Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, where The Last Matinee unfolds on a furiously dark and rainy evening in 1993.

Industrious engineering student Ana (Luciana Grasso) is taking a shift in the projection booth, hoping to dodge the clumsy attention of Mauricio (Pedro Duarte) a boring usher with no game to speak of.

In the theater itself, a few parties settle in for a viewing of Frankenstein: Day of the Beast. There’s a couple on their first date, a little kid (Franco Duran), who hides in the aisle to see a grisly horror film, a trio of smart-ass teens sipping on a hooch bottle, and a grumpy old geezer who just wants to enjoy the movie.

While their collective gaze is locked on the onscreen atrocities, a beefy lunatic in a trench coat (Ricardo Islas) is stealthily carving up the “crowd” until the small audience gets noticeable smaller.

Editor’s note: Ricardo Islas, who plays the killer, also directed the gruesome Frankenstein feature being watched by the victims. How’s that for symmetry?

Contenti assembles a dreary little theater world peopled by very mundane citizens. When the action ramps up, the safe and predictable reality is shattered, heralded by blasts of dissonant synthesizer that generally indicates a crazed killer has entered the building.

Once the madman has announced his presence with a few preliminary cuts, the lurid elements of operatic horror (there is a poster of Dario Argento’s Opera on the wall) snap into place.

Doomed moviegoers are artfully slain and fall, like snack-bar sweets, to the cinema floor as seen through the eyes of poor little Tomas, the urchin who spends most of the film cowering in the darkness from authority and maniac alike.

A little parental discretion would have been a good idea. Tomas is going to need years of therapy.

Contenti isn’t the first filmmaker to draw a parallel line between screen violence and the behavior of deranged of individuals, but The Last Matinee is reverently rendered as a tribute to the giallo school, even if it lacks some of the top-drawer flair demonstrated by the masters of the craft.

The message comes through loud and clear, to those of us watching. We willingly put ourselves in the grip of horrifying stories. Buying a ticket is a contract that puts us is in the same line of fire as the characters.

And that’s the thrill of it all. Just ask Tomas, if you can find him.

To his credit, Contenti’s most vivid creation is the eyeball-chomping killer. Shortly before the conclusion, a few tattered survivors witness the fiend lustily chowing down on his favorite snack, just as they were minutes before with popcorn. This moment is such an over-the-top freakout, you could get whiplash.

It’s a surefire scream scenario that also folds in neatly with an earlier visual point of reference. Nicely done!

The Last Matinee is not the last we’ll be hearing from Maximiliano Contenti, that’s for certain.

Settle in and get comfortable, because there’s no walking out once the movie starts.

Old (2021)

We’ve discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s work here before, and true to form, his new feature, Old has elicited sharply mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has them squarely at 50 percent favorable.

Siting precarious fantasies such as The Village, The Happening, and Lady in the Water, fanboys and critics alike have pummeled the acclaimed genre director with charges of proffering half-baked, preposterous plots that don’t pay off. MNS routinely gets written up for Twilight Zone endings more befitting the small screen rather than a theatrical feature.

Stylistic quibbles aside, MNS is and always has been an artful storyteller, and in Old he delivers another dark fable, this time about a family’s vacation to a tropical resort that turns tourists into unwilling test subjects.

Having adapted the French graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan fades in on a European household on holiday, comprised of Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and son Trent (Nolan River).

Along with a few other hotel guests, Guy’s group is bundled off to enjoy an afternoon of food and frolic at a secluded beach of postcard quality. Everything seems serene and wondrous, but time gets away from these blissful beachcombers, and they start aging in fast-forward.

The lion’s share of Old is spent with the unfortunate tourists as they try every method at their disposal to leave the beach, with very little success. Kids grow up. Young adults get old. Old adults get older and die.

Trent, a curious and open-minded lad, is soon replaced by successively older actors, but continues to try and puzzle out their predicament. He takes a quick time out to father a child with another guest on a similar biological clock, yet he remains committed to the task of liberating his loved ones.

Shyamalan gets credit for covering a lot of ground here, gracefully transitioning from drama, to horror, to deep questions about the ethics of scientific research.

Of course, we also get plenty of sentimental Mom and Pop moments to remind us that time slips away quickly so be sure to tell everyone you love that, blah, blah, blah.

In this fashion, MNS has always been able to have his cake and eat it, too. By combining humanity’s plight with forces at work beyond our comprehension, we are forced to consider perspectives other than our own.

Visually, Shyamalan continually disorients the viewer by having characters wake up in a daze and seeing familiar looking, but different people standing around them. Who are they?

A sunny, postcard beach isn’t supposed to this sinister, right?

This ambiguity provides the dark current that will keep you watching. It’s just like in real life, but in Old, we can feel the time passing. And it hurts like hell.

They Remain (2018)

Two biologists working for an anonymous corporation are dispatched to the former site of a Manson-type cult compound to investigate strange animal behavior in the area.

Keith (William Jackson Harper) thoroughly explores the acreage, setting up camera feeds to monitor the fauna. Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) examines the data trying to find anomalies.

This goes on for the majority of the movie, as we observe the scientific method gradually give way to something far older and more primitive.

As so often happens, the more time they spend at the accursed locale, the more things break down. Keith hears voices. Jessica hears knocking at the door. Keith chases a wolf. Keith and Jessica drink whiskey.

They Remain is a subdued film, and it helps if you’re in the mood for subtlety. Writer-director Philip Gelatt adapted Laird Barron’s 30 for the screenplay, and it’s told largely from Keith’s perspective, which gets less reliable as time rolls on.

“I trust everybody, just not people,” he says to Jessica during one of their Happy Hours.

Keith dutifully collects his data, but the more he ventures out into the silent forest the less confident, and more unmoored he becomes.

Jessica, who is white, is the obsessive one, and Keith, a black man, worries that she’s not telling him the truth about their situation. Though he’s an experienced woodsman, he finds that his senses aren’t much help when faced with something that doesn’t track like an average specimen.

In fact, we’re never quite certain who is observing whom in They Remain. Whether it’s ghosts, hallucinations, cave dwellers, or just the effects of isolation, the feeling of someone watching is quite inescapable.

In scene after scene, Gelatt’s camera finds Keith hunkered down in the bush, but he doesn’t blend into his surroundings at all. He’s nervous because he isn’t safe, and he can’t hide in what is rapidly shaping up to be a hostile environment.

That’s a scary position to be in. They Remain is a profoundly unsettling movie and a very effective one.

12 Hour Shift (2020)

Originally published in Mystery and Suspense, February 17, 2021

Who knew the shady goings-on at a third-rate Arkansas hospital would strike black-comedy gold?

In Brea Grant’s frenetic and scathing 12 Hour Shift, we spend a long day with Mandy (Angela Bettis in a tour de force), a harried, overworked nurse with a penchant for snorting crushed pain pills when the going gets tough. She and her quick-thinking supervisor Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) have a profitable side hustle going on, supplying the Dixie Mafia with fresh organs that would otherwise go to waste.

Despite her dangerous and illegal sideline, Mandy proves to be the most (only?) compassionate soul for miles, especially when compared to her blonde cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth), an airhead sociopath who picks up the organs for burly crime boss Nick (wrestler Mick Foley).

Complications ensue when Regina stupidly misplaces a kidney prompting Nick to send violence-prone henchman Mikey (Dusty Warren) to fetch hers as a replacement. Stalling for time, Regina hightails it back to the hospital to find more organs, really fast.

How hard could it be?

At its best moments, 12 Hour Shift is an anarchic riot, held together by a righteous performance from Angela Bettis as Mandy. During her titular workday Mandy curses, threatens, flirts, pleads, freaks out, and commits gruesome acts, each requiring its own facial transformation. Bettis never misses a beat—her expressions and comic timing are never less than impeccable. Mandy stands tall as a complicated, resourceful woman with the enviable ability to compartmentalize her train wreck of a life.

Chloe Farnworth plays Regina as the dopiest loose cannon ever let loose in a hospital. After seducing a hapless skater boy and carving him up, Regina discovers the kidneys aren’t where she thought and ends up stealing the poor kid’s bladder.

“Why would you bring this cousin of yours into this if you knew she’d kill people and rat us out?” asks an exasperated Karen.

“I sometimes have too much faith in humanity,” Mandy answers.

“That’s what I like about you,” Karen admits.

The mercenary organ-legging operation merrily flips the script on the idea of medical professionals being selfless and saintly. Instead, the staff at this hospital spends its spare time hunting for spare parts out of dreadful economic necessity, rather like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as incompetent undertakers in Comedy Of Terrors.

The American Medical Association probably won’t be amused.

Between hair-raising scenes of bloodletting, Karen and Mandy find time to commiserate over crappy birthday cake in the break room and an annoying religious coworker.

Their mundane griping brings unexpected blue-collar verisimilitude to a zany plot about brutally invasive surgeries happening in the hospital corridors. 

Writer-director Grant is up to the task. She bakes up inventive, idiosyncratic characters that would be right at home in a Coen Brothers universe, while her opera-driven fight sequences jump like Tarantino on too much coffee.

12 Hour Shift is a freewheeling spectacle that oscillates between gross and quirky, accompanied by superb acting and quotable dialogue. As someone once said about a different film, it’s a cult movie in need of a cult.

True, it does require some adjustment on the part of the audience to root for a drug-addled organ trafficker, but by the time the end credits roll, it will be done.